Philip Jenkins

Foundation and Empire

The early Arab conquests and the rise of Islam.

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Beginning in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov created with his Foundation series an enduring classic of science fiction. He depicted the development of inconceivably vast galactic empires, guided by the predictive powers of a complex social and behavioral science known as Psychohistory. For millennia, the universe unfolds as it should. Then, overnight, all these plans are utterly confounded by the rise of a messianic prophet called the Mule, a mutant who brings all lesser mortals under his sway, and who conquers all rival empires. Instantly, all psychohistorical bets are off.

In this instance, as in so much else, Asimov took the Mule from the pages of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and specifically the account of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632). And although Asimov was explicitly writing fantastic fiction, his account often echoes older historical writing on the rise of Islam. We read of the great Roman and Persian empires that dominated much of the known world, until very suddenly, a charismatic leader who believes he is instructed by God gathers faithful followers around himself. Ultimately, these supremely motivated legions pour out of Arabia into the civilized world, conquering most of it within a century or so. In this prophet-centered version, Muhammad is quite as radical a newcomer to the known universe as is the Mule, and his career is equally at right angles to conventional historical reality. He comes from nowhere, and the incredible rapidity of the rise of Islam seems near-miraculous.

Fortunately, the rise of Islamic empires can be explained without invoking either supernatural powers or genetic mutation, and Robert Hoyland's In God's Path offers a very convincing attempt. Hoyland's subtitle deserves careful reflection, with the distinction he draws between Arab and Islamic forces. Historically, many writers begin their story with Muhammad himself, whose mission takes place in an Arab world that has little obvious contact with the great civilizations to the north. Such an image fits well with the Islamic tradition that everything of note began with the new faith, while all previous eras in Arabia were consigned to the age of ignorance and darkness, Jahiliyyah. But that is far from accurate. As Hoyland himself showed in his important earlier book Arabia and the Arabs (2001), an Arab expansion was on the cards long before the birth of the Prophet. Arab conquests were one thing; an Islamic empire was not necessarily identical.

In God's Path is a thoughtful and nuanced guide to an age that was far more complex than we might imagine from older accounts. Most valuably of all, Hoyland distinguishes clearly between strictly contemporary sources, in which he is thoroughly immersed, and the exalted legends penned centuries afterwards. Only when we have finished the book do we realize just how very minimally Muhammad himself featured in the story. It is Foundation without the Mule.

For many Arabs, that age of ignorance was rather an era of power and prosperity. Whether as individuals or tribal groups, Arabs served enthusiastically in the armies and political structures of both the great world empires, Rome and Persia, "the two eyes of the world." Throughout the 6th and early 7th centuries, these two realms were locked in a death struggle, in which each used Arab client states as agents of regional influence. The sons of Ghassan, the Ghassanids, looked to Rome, the Eastern Lakhmids to Persia, and their combined power stretched over much of what we could today call Syria, Jordan, and southern Iraq, as well as northern Saudi Arabia. Both kingdoms were heavily Christianized, an influence that was transmitted to early Muslim thought.

These surrogate states gained new influence during the lethal wars of the early 7th century, as it became clear that either Rome or Persia was destined for extinction. (These were also the years of Muhammad's manhood). The greatest moment of the Persian expansion came in 614 with the capture of Jerusalem, an event lamented in the Qur'an. By 628, the Romans triumphed, crushing Persian military power. But it was a hollow victory, after wars that left the Middle East devastated and starving. When we recall the profound and often violent divisions between Christian sects—above all, the split between pro-imperial Orthodox/Catholic believers, and dissident Monophysites—we realize that by 630 or so, the region was extraordinarily vulnerable to some new external power.

Hoyland rightly stresses the diversity of the potential claimants to such a role, and the range of rival peoples prowling around the fringes of empire, and often stabbing close to its heart. The Balkans held the much-feared Avars, supposedly kin to the Huns, while Turkic peoples roamed and conquered very widely. Most significant were the Arabs themselves, though again, as Hoyland notes, that label ("Arab") was applied over-generously to ethnic groups whom it fitted poorly. Many other fringe peoples were neatly airbrushed out of the conquest history. Critically too, the great imperial armies of both Rome and Persia included huge numbers of these various peoples, Turks, Avars, and Arabs, making nonsense of any simple nationalist narrative.

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